This well written and well-researched book, "Becoming Richard Pryor," by Scott Saul, unlike the homage to him given by his best friend Paul Mooney, called "Black is the New White," attempts to get at what animated Pryor. I believe the author found two of the key motive forces: fear, and a fierce inner sense of fairness, honesty and dignity, the latter being forces that even Richard himself did not discover he had until much later in his life.
As is increasingly the case for most Americans these days, Pryor had good reasons to be fearful in the complicated social environment he grew up in. He had grown up as a "ward" of his grandmother Marie and her sons, the eldest of whom, Buck, was Pryor's father. Marie, a committed Baptist, managed and ran a criminal enterprise that today would fit comfortably under the RICO statue: It was a chain of whorehouses, gambling dens and pools halls in the "bottoms" of Peoria, Illinois. Pryor's mother, Gertrude was one of Marie's prostitutes and as a result, was not a factor in Richard life.
One of the things little Richie was most fearful of was the rest of his family, all of whom were constantly on edge and extremely excitable and extremely violent. They let little Richie know early on that he was not to ask questions about the nature of the family business. As a result, Pryor's young eyes were privy to the kind of X-rated knowledge that scared the hell out of him because he did not understand it.
This knowledge, his inability to ask questions, coupled with Marie's strong Baptist religious convictions that required them all to be in the front pews of the Church each Sunday, at the very least left Richard confused. But mostly it left him scared. It also warped his social development and his ability to access to his own emotions.
The same was true of school, where he was the only black, and where he was thus much hated, bullied daily and referred to by the N-word even by his teachers. School was an experience repeated later while he was a soldier in Germany, where he served to help free Europe from the tyranny of Hitler's racism but was forbidden to bring this fight back home. His commanding officers also called him the n-word.
Richard, finally beginning to negotiate his place in the world, had accidentally hit upon a pure strategy for gaining entry. He discovered that while "acting-the-fool" might bring on ridicule, this was a lot better than being beaten, hated, or ignored. So, adopting it as his own, he was not the first, nor will he be the last black to use "clowning" as a pure strategy for warding off psychological injury and hurt.
So, little did Richie know at the time, that he had made the first of a series of Faustian bargains with the devil: Becoming a funny man in exchange, at first for a modicum of approval and acceptance, but then quickly following this slippery slope downward into fame, wealth, white women, to its rock bottom, cocaine.
After first getting the hell out of Peoria, and then marveling at Bill Cosby's comedic routine, Pryor made his second Faustian bargain. He would ride his clowning strategy -- using Cosby's jokes and persona -- like a bolt of lightening out of Peoria all the way to New York and across the country up into the Hollywood sun.
During the formative years, when I first saw him in LA, Richard was a clown without portfolio, He literally "became" Bill Cosby. And by the terms of the Faustian bargain, he achieved modest success being someone other than Richard Pryor. But due to the struggle going on inside his head, and not yet knowing who Richard Pryor was, the clown act of "being Cosby," was destined not to last long.
One night, like a man on the high trapeze in a circus act, Richard Pryor crashed and burned at the Aladdin Hotel in grand style. He was banned from Las Vegas, even before his entrance ticket had been punched. The war going on between forces inside his head, and the turmoil going on in the inner city streets, made the Aladdin crash Richard Pryor's "come to Jesus moment." The existential question the crash begged was this: If not Cosby, then who?
Pryor and Mooney retired to Berkeley to find the answer to that question, and when they returned, together they flew into the heat of the Hollywood sun with abandon. At first, the heat of the sun did not burn because Richard and Mooney's new material was even hotter. This dangerous duo, took the city by storm. Pryor had finally shed the old "race neutered" Bill Cosby skin, and for the first time replaced it with an authentic testosterone-driven Richard Pryor skin.
However, once Richard had reached the peak of "Mount Self-knowledge," Hollywood was not all bliss, hospitable peaches and cream. Rich was unprepared for the reflected glare of the Hollywood sun. The glare of so much money, so many pretty white women, and so much cocaine? All would cause him to crash and burn again, only this time it would be done in slow motion, with the eyes of the world watching, and many others would go down with him. Five stars.
Postscript I: In the aftermath of Bill Cosby's own ignominious crash after a long lucrative and trouble free ride under the protection of his own faustian bargain, in which, in exchange for keeping his comedy "race neutered," he was allowed not only fame and upwards of $400 million, but also (if the more than two dozen allegations against him are true), the freedom to drug and rape women seeking his help, with impunity? As Bill Maher suggested, maybe Cos ought to use those boot straps, aimed at all black men, to now pull up his own pants? Boy, have the chickens finally coming home to roost? (And yes, Virginia, maybe there is a god/Santa Claus after all?)
Postscript II: In the aftermath of Charlie Edbo's murder, who can forget that Pryor was the heir apparent to the Lenny Bruce legacy of comedic irreverence for religious icons and symbolism. To wit: One of Pryor's wino characters says: "Jesus Christ? Yeah, I know the boy. He ain't sh-t, I saw him the other day beating his momma in the elevator with a pool stick."
And on another occasion the wino says: "I first met god in 1929, right outside a little hotel in Baltimore. I was eating a fish sandwich. .. And god said unto me, in a resounding voice: Gimme some of that sandwich?! I said, if you god make your own damn sandwich. Amen